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When Rickard Maasleitner woke up on Tuesday morning, the headmaster's words were still ringing in his ears; and there was reason to suspect he had been dreaming about them all night.

You must understand that your being off work sick is not only a result of your allergy problems. It is also an opportunity for you to think things over. I want you to consider-and to consider very carefully-whether or not you really want to continue working here.

He had pushed his glasses down to the tip of his nose and leaned forward over his desk as he talked. Tried to look as fatherly and understanding as possible, despite the fact that they were more or less the same age and had known each other since they had first joined the teaching staff. During the Van Breukelen era.

You have plenty of time, he had added. Put an arm around Maasleitner's shoulders for a moment as he left the room, and mumbled something about idealism and upbringing. In bad taste.

Plenty of time?

He turned over and checked the alarm clock in the bookcase. A quarter to ten.

A quarter to ten on a Tuesday morning in January. Still in bed. A strange feeling, to say the least. Off sick for three weeks with allergy problems. Ah well-what it really meant was that he had been suspended from teaching for dragging a cheeky fifteen-year-old out into the corridor and telling him to go to hell. Or back to the country he came from, wherever that was. And boxed the ears of another one of similar ilk.

And not regretted it for one moment.

That was the crux of the matter. He had not apologized. Refused to crawl up to the cross. Both incidents had taken place during the hectic exam period at the beginning of December, and since then the wheels had been turning.

Protests by pupils. The parents' association. A couple of articles in the newspapers. All the time there had been a door open for him, and, of course, he had been well aware of it-an escape route which would have enabled everybody concerned to draw a line under the whole business, if he would only acknowledge his guilt and beg for forgiveness.

If he would regret it, in other words.

Everybody had expected that to be what happened. Needless to say. Maasleitner would do the sensible thing, do the decent thing, and give way. If not before the Christmas holidays, then during them. Obviously he would be filled with misgivings after due consideration, and all that.

But that was not what happened at all. He had come to a dead end instead. At quite an early stage he had known that he was not going to back down this time. He had done that before, pleaded guilty and begged to be forgiven for actions he knew deep down, and without a shadow of a doubt, were correct and justified.

This time that was more obvious than ever. In the case of both of those young thugs. They had received only a fraction of the treatment they really deserved. An ounce of justice for once. And now he was suspended, more or less. As yet they weren't calling it that, and he was still being paid, but, of course, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing was a bit more official. The sack, in other words.

Three weeks, to be precise. Rickard Maasleitner knew the rules of the game. Understood them and didn't like them. Never had. A safety net for cretins and blackguards. Hell and damnation, he thought as he kicked off the covers. Justice!

He had barely gotten out of bed when the telephone rang.

If it's somebody from school, I'll hang up on them, he decided.

But it wasn't somebody from school. It was a woman's voice. A quite low-pitched and slightly gruff voice.

Do you recognize this tune? it said.

That was all. Then the music started. Something instrumental. Or a long intro, perhaps. A bit long in the tooth, by the sound of it. But a nice tune.

Hello, he said after listening for about ten seconds. Is this some kind of quiz?

No answer. The music kept on playing.

He held the receiver some way from his ear and thought for a moment.

If you think you can throw me off balance with this kind of bullshit, you're wrong! he said, and hung up.

Scum of the earth, he thought. What the hell's this world coming to?

He put on his dressing gown and went to the kitchen to make breakfast.

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